|Mike Aviles (Icon/SMI)|
It was part of the Royals’ shortsighted draft strategy of the early part of this decade. They would draft college seniors in the middle rounds and offer them a $1,000 signing bonus in a take-it-or-leave-it gambit. If you haven’t heard of this strategy, that’s not surprising, considering that aside from Zack Greinke (who was drafted in the first round), Aviles is the only player drafted by the Royals between 2001 and 2003 to make any kind of an impact at the major league level.
Aviles came to the Royals after a solid college career at Concordia College in New York. (Its only notable baseball alumnus—until now—was Scott Leius) Following his senior season, Aviles was named NCAA Division II player of the year after leading D-II in hitting (.500), slugging (1.016), runs (83) and homers (22).
With that $1,000 in the bank, Aviles began his professional career in the Arizona Rookie League and promptly went to work.
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO 2003 Rk 212 77 19 5 6 .363 .400 .585 .985 .222
At the time, the Royals didn’t have an advanced rookie team, so the 22-year-old shortstop in the Arizona League was, in effect, a man among boys. His .985 OPS was well above the league average of .752. Aviles’ 6 percent walk rate revealed a hitter who took an aggressive approach at the plate, not surprising for someone from the college ranks competing against high school talent for the first time in four years. For his efforts, he was named the Arizona Rookie League MVP.
Promoted to High-A for the 2004 season, Aviles continued to hit:
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO 2004 A+ 463 139 40 4 6 .300 .355 .443 .798 .143
His walk rate improved to about 8.4 percent but his OBP fell due to a reduction in hit rate. Playing a level up, that wasn’t surprising. Still, he turned in a solid year and was named to the Carolina League postseason All-Star team at shortstop. It was still early in Aviles’ professional career, but it seemed the Royals might have stumbled upon something.
Then his career seemed to stall.
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO RC/27 2005 AA 521 146 33 6 14 .280 .318 .447 .765 .167 2006 AAA 469 124 21 3 8 .264 .307 .373 .680 .109 4.17
While keeping his walk rate in the single digits and with a strikeout rate hovering between 10 and 12 percent, Aviles was continuing to put the ball in play at a high rate. The trouble was, as he was advancing in the organization, fewer of those balls were landing for hits. As a result his OBP sagged. It wasn’t all bad news—the drop in OBP in 2005, while alarming, was offset by an increase in ISO from the previous year as he began to develop a home run stroke. Following the 2005 season, he was named a Texas League All-Star.
However, the following year his ISO plummeted as both his gap and home run power declined sharply. It’s not a stretch to say his first attempt at Triple-A was a disaster.
His 2006 season marked his third consecutive year of steep decline in OPS and it was the first time his OPS sagged below league average. His .680 OPS was well under the PCL average of .768. Perhaps fueled by his power surge at Double-A, Aviles began swinging for the fences and it wasn’t working. That year he posted career lows across the board, including a .281 BABIP.
Aviles was still thought of as a fringe prospect (Baseball America had him ranked at No. 23 in the Royals organization) following the 2005 season, but his Triple-A campaign in 2006, combined with the fact he was 25 years old, had many thinking he was a longshot to ever reach the major leagues. The conventional thought was that if he was ever able to regain his stroke, it was possible he could catch on in the majors as a utility player.
While Aviles was struggling to make an impression in Triple-A, the Royals shortstop at the big club was Angel Berroa. Although he was just three years removed from being named the AL Rookie of the Year, Berroa was having a horrible year in 2006, hitting an anemic .234/.259/.333. Berroa had a contract that owed him $10 million over the next three years, so the Royals weren’t exactly looking to replace him. Aviles’ struggles made it an easy decision for Kansas City.
However, there could be no doubt that in March of 2007 the Royals finally decided they had seen enough of Berroa. Instead of promoting Aviles coming off his disappointing year in Triple-A, the Royals looked outside the organization and spun a deal with the Atlanta Braves for Tony Pena Jr.
His acquisition, combined with the Berroa’s demotion to Triple-A, meant that Aviles was a man in search of a position in Omaha. As a result, he logged time at short, second and third for the O-Royals. The defensive machinations didn’t seem to bother him: He posted his best offensive campaign since his year in A-ball.
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO RC/27 2007 AAA 538 159 27 6 17 .296 .332 .463 .795 .167 5.73
The second go-around in Triple-A, Aviles was putting the ball in play at roughly the same rate, but more of those were falling for hits. Moving higher in the batting order gave him more opportunity and his OPS of .795 moved—barely— back ahead of the PCL league average of .794. Better still, his BABIP rebounded to a solid .307.
For his efforts, Aviles was named the Royals’ Minor League Hitter of the Year.
Despite the accolades and the obvious improvement after repeating Triple-A, the Royals still didn’t view their shortstop as having any kind of future in the organization. As a five-year minor league veteran, he was eligible to be selected in last December’s Rule 5 draft unless the Royals protected him by placing him on their 40-man roster. With their supposed glut of middle infielders, they chose to expose him in the draft, where for a mere $50,000 any team could have grabbed him. Apparently, there’s not much of a market for a 26-year-old middle infielder with an average to below average glove and a .795 OPS in Triple-A. All 29 teams passed.
Still with the Royals, Aviles produced an outstanding spring training, collecting 13 hits in 31 at bats. But he still couldn’t force his way onto the major league roster. Groundhog Day: He opened 2008 in the same place he began his previous two seasons, in Triple-A Omaha. They say the third time is a charm.
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO RC/27 2008 AAA 214 72 21 6 10 .336 .370 .631 1.001 .295 9.58
Aviles was laying waste to PCL pitching, posting the highest slugging percentage of his long minor league career. In just 51 games, he banged out more extra base hits (37) than he hit in his entire first season at that level (32 in 129 games). Still, the Royals stuck with Pena as their shortstop as he hit .164/.185/.205 through his first 150 plate appearances.
But with Pena putting up some historically horrific offensive numbers, Aviles could no longer be ignored. He was finally placed on the Royals’ 40-man roster and got “the call” on May 29. At 27 years and 77 days at the time of his promotion, Aviles is one of the oldest rookies in the American League. But he’s playing like a veteran.
Year Level AB H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO RC/27 2008 ML 270 88 22 2 7 .326 .353 .500 .853 .174 6.36
Aviles’ .367 BABIP suggests more than a few of his ground balls have eyes and are finding their way through the infield. While we can say some of his singles are a product of luck, the power is very real and keeping his swing short and compact, he has learned to use it to his advantage. His 31 extra base hits so far are just one fewer than he hit in all of 2006 at Triple-A.
While Aviles sprays his doubles all over the field, his home run power comes when he gets a pitch he can pull—all seven of his home runs this year are to left or left-center.
The key to his success has always been keeping the ball out of the air. His current batted ball data, including a 1.42 GB/FB ratio with a line drive rate of 18 percent, is exactly where he needs to be. If he reverts to swinging for the fences and putting more balls in the air, his average and power will begin to drop. Besides, his elevated BABIP and his 3.9 percent walk rate suggests his batting and on-base percentages are due for a reality check. But even if he can’t maintain his current pace, he’s still the best option—both offensively and defensively—the Royals have at shortstop. It’s a shame it took them 61 games to figure that out.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Aviles. At the end of June, he hit a 5-for-39 skid and saw his batting average drop from .333 to .273. His OBP had a corresponding tumble from .362 to .302. Pitchers have figured him out and his luck has run out, went the conventional wisdom. Not so fast. Aviles made the proper adjustments and in his last 36 games, he’s hit .355/.383/.510 to bump his season totals through 283 plate appearances as of Aug. 20 to .326/.353/.500. He is now the undisputed everyday shortstop for the Royals and is finally thought of as a component on a team with an eye on the future.
Aviles’ late arrival means it’s unlikely he will make much noise when the ballots are counted for AL Rookie of the Year. Besides, the award is Evan Longoria’s to lose. But Aviles should get some recognition with a few of those second and third place votes.
Not too shabby for a five-year minor league veteran who wasn’t even on his team’s 40-man roster until the end of May.
References & Resources
Baseball America provided some prospect insight and Baseball Reference and Fangraphs provided the numbers. Thanks to the Royals PR department for providing some biographical information.